My name is “Turok”

Does the keyboard affect the way you think?

Just got back from a wickedly cool conversation with a group of MIT students and Frank Wilson — author of The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture. Wilson’s book argues that the hand has inexorably shaped the way we use our brains. The unique structure of the hand — and how it lets us manipulate our environment — is what has allowed humans to develop such highly evolved cognition.

But the really interesting part of the conversation began when we argued over the computer keyboard — and how and whether it affects the way we think.

Most of the twentysomething students in the class, who grew up using computers, believe it totally affects the way they process thoughts. I agreed. In the past, I’ve used voice-recognition software and found that it totally screws up my thought processes. The voice moves too quickly; I found myself blurting out sentences, realizing they weren’t quite what I wanted to say, and then having to go back and erase or revise them. Typing, in contrast, slows my output down and leaves me time to process my thoughts as I think them. It creates a sort of buffer zone between the speed of my thinking and the speed of my expression — and the “thinking” seems to happen (partly, anyway) in that space.

And on an emotional level, I find keyboard weirdly and almost erotically pleasant. I remember old keyboards the way you remember the old smells of former houses, or your dad’s aftershave. When I got my hands on an old Vic-20 two years ago, the clunky, thick-as-molasses action on the keys instantly transported me back to my geek-ass childhood, hacking shitty slow-mo games in BASIC. (One of my fellow Knight Fellows, Annalee Newitz, writes a lot on the physical erotics of technology and had extremely cool stuff to say about this also.) And these days, when I’m away from the keyboard for a day, I’ll actually look forward to sitting down at one — not specifically to do anything, but just to dig the feel. Maybe it’s that I associate a type of pleasant thinking or communicating (like IM) with a keyboard. Pathetic, kinda, but there you go.

The weird thing is, Wilson himself was extremely skeptical of the keyboard’s role in shaping cognition. For the hand to have a serious impact on our thinking, he feels, it has to involve a “nontrivial” movement of the body. Keyboarding, with its tiny little vibrations of the fingers, doesn’t count. It is not, he argued, even close to the way we play an instrument like the piano, where the hand is the conduit for a full-body experience, with the player leaning into the instrument, balancing, pulling back. I couldn’t disagree more. Much as I hate to indulge “generational” analysis, it seemed like that was at play here: Rich is a middle-aged guy who didn’t grow up keyboarding. “I’ve never felt any sort of attachment to the keyboard myself,” he says. “As far as I’m concerned, I could just as easily be using a voice-recognition system. It’s just an input device.”

Wilson and his book are brilliant, but I think he’s selling the keyboard short. Typing absolutely involves your entire body, as much as any musical instrument. I’ve played guitar for 20 years and found the rhythms of the two amazingly comparable. For example, guitar players frequently breathe in rhythm with their playing. You inhale at the beginning of a riff, and exhale slowly as you go along — sometimes stopping when you run out of breath. It helps make your playing seem on a more human pace; when you’re gasping for air, it’s a sign your riff has gone on for too long. And I swear to god I do the same thing typing: I inhale, hold my breath, work in spasms, tense up as I think through something, then release.

(Realaudio interview with Wilson about the hand, here on NPR.)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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